Here’s What I’ve Been Learning About Healing Shame

In Wednesday’s therapy session, E observes that my shame feels something sticky. It’s a thin, transparent layer all over me. I peel part of it back, but I can’t get rid of it; it sticks to my fingers to gets caught in my hair. It won’t let me go.

I’m surprised, too, by its tenaciousness. I’ll think, “oh, we worked on that in therapy, and I’m okay with it now.” And then it all comes up all over again. Maybe that’s how it goes after repeated sexually abusive experiences: the shame becomes so deeply embedded that it can no longer be separated from the self.

And yet, if I truly believed that, I wouldn’t keep working on it in therapy, would I? (No, I wouldn’t, because therapy  costs add up, I am unemployed, and my frugal upbringing won’t allow me to burn up hundred dollar bills just for the hell of it.) Ultimately, I believe it is possible to heal shame. Not easy, but possible.

Perhaps the answer is not to peel off the layers and layers of shame and throw them into the trash. Perhaps what I need to do is transform those layers into something else.

One thing I have learned in recent months is that I can’t rid myself of a painful emotion by pushing it away. Instead, I need to accept it, to feel it. I never understood what that meant in concrete terms until I experienced some guided meditations on working with difficult emotions.

In those meditations, we are encouraged to envision our difficult emotion–in my case, Shame–with a physical presence. It can be a giant gray blob or a porcupine with horns or a dragon, whatever feels right in that moment. We imagine ourselves sitting on a park bench or a porch swing. The sun in shining, and we are safe and comfortable. We invite Shame (or Grief or Anger or Anxiety; pick your pain) to sit beside us on the bench. There we sit, quietly, the two of us soaking up the sun. Nothing has to happen. Or maybe we decide to put our arm around Shame, despite her hot, prickly surface. Maybe we tell her, “It’s going to be all right.”

That’s it. That’s all. We let her be there. We don’t argue with her or scold her or tell her to fuck the hell off.

I’ve learned other things as well. Shame has a right to be there, as all emotions do. But Shame doesn’t get to run the show. She’s not the boss. Instead, my wisest self, the wise woman who is my true core self, she’s the boss. And because she is wise and has my best interests at heart, she sets some boundaries.

“Shame,” she says. “You are so welcome to sit out here on the bench and enjoy the sun with us. We’re even willing to listen, for a while, to your concerns. But if you start throwing one of your temper tantrums, we’re going to have to send you to the time-out room until you can calm down.”

So here’s something else I’ve come to understand about Shame. The promise of being truly listened to is very appealing to her. After all, she’s been told to shut up and go away a lot of the time. So when I invite her to spend ten minutes telling me about her thoughts and beliefs about sexuality, our tender topic of the moment, she jumps on the opportunity. She writes frenetically, filling a page.

When the timer goes off signalling her 10 minutes are up, I channel the wisdom of the wise woman and ask Shame to stop. “Thank you for telling me what you honestly think. I promise to consider these ideas seriously, but later. You know it can be harmful if I spend too much time on these ideas all at once. I’m going to put them aside for today and come back to them.”

Shame seems satisfied, for the moment. She returns to the bench in the sun. Meanwhile, I take the paper she’s written, fold it up, and tuck it into the bottom of my purse.

It’s not enough to do this once or twice. I don’t know how many times I will need to revisit some version of this, welcoming Shame in and listening to her for a while. I may get sick of it sometimes. E may get sick of hearing about her sometimes. But Shame’s a persistent and tricky creature–“sticky”–and she has a lot to say. I’d better make sure that bench is a comfortable one.

#healing #shame #trauma

*** * *** * ***

Side note: This week my blog turns two years old. This little space I carved out for some anonymous writing about my depression and therapy experiences has turned into a place for tremendous learning and rich support from readers from around the world. I never would have imagined how valuable it would be in my emotional growth. Special thanks to those who read and comment regularly. It means a lot to me.

 

23 thoughts on “Here’s What I’ve Been Learning About Healing Shame

  1. “But Shame doesn’t get to run the show. She’s not the boss. Instead, my wisest self, the wise woman who is my true core self, she’s the boss. And because she is wise and has my best interests at heart, she sets some boundaries.”

    Being listened to, having our feelings validated isn’t something we’re used to. It’s new. Anything negative we will embrace because that’s our schooling, our earliest education..shame. But we all grow. We grow as babes from milk to solid foods. We grow from every point in our lives but when that growth and proper education is denied us it leaves us stunted for awhile. Oh, but when we bloom we bloom full force, don’t we?

    Faith
    LOVE THIS POST

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “shame doesn’t get to run the show”

    Q, this is brilliant. I’m going to borrow this for me and my grief, and shame, and anger. Thank you.

    And thank you for blogging and for being here, as much as we support you, you support us by leaps and bounds as well. Much love and many thanks! PD

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t take credit for the brilliance. It’s just the melding of what I’m learning in therapy, from meditation, from reading, and in the mind/body work I do with C. I am happy about the way it is coming together for me right now.

      Thank you for the love and support. I learn so much from you!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this! That’s a very nice bench. Is it near your house (the internal one)? I wonder what role Shame will one day play. Even though she is hot and prickly she must hold a lot of pain too.

    Thank you so much for writing and being so willing to share your journey via posts and comments. you have impacted my life in very real and positive ways. I am so glad to know you!

    Like

    • Yes, thanks for remembering – I do envision the bench being near my (internal) house, out towards the meadow. (Somehow I have a meadow not that far from the ocean. The internal world doesn’t follow the usual ecological rules.)

      I think Shame will get to have a room in my house too. Maybe she’s so sticky that she’ll never fully separate from some of the old wounds. But I’ll learn to deal with her more gently, and she’ll learn that she doesn’t need to throw such enormous temper tantrums.

      I’m glad to know you too, Emily, really. xxoo

      Like

    • Hi Little Fairy, thanks so much for commenting! I’m happy to know you are there. I invite you to speak up more often–if you want, no pressure. You are very welcome here. Thank you, too, for the kind words about the blog. It’s been good for me, and I feel grateful, too.

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  4. Oh thank you so much. I learn so much from other’s writings. Yes, I must try having these conversations with Shame and Anxiety and anyone else who seems to be running my show lately. In fact I’m waiting for a call from a new therapist but if I keep reading blogs and putting them into practice I could save myself a cool £400 a month in therapy fees. Now that would be really neat wouldn’t it !!

    Like

    • Ha, yes, wouldn’t it be good (and cost-effective!) if reading blogs could substitute for therapy. I don’t think that would work for me though. As much as I learn from other people’s blogs, I still need the individualized help of a calm, skillful, caring professional who can help me connect the dots between all this wisdom and my own personal struggles. Even if you also need that kind of help though, it can’t hurt to have some gentle conversations with Shame and Anxiety. It’s definitely more effective than trying to chase them away with a big stick.

      Good luck with the new therapist, Serena. That’s always a challenge.

      Like

    • I hadn’t particularly thought about my placement of the bench by a meadow, but yes, I agree, there is something hopeful and positive about the open space. I always experience that when I get out in Montana or Wyoming, where there are enormous, wide-open spaces and skies that stretch on forever (here in the city, the skies feel smaller, and with so much rain lately, they also feel lower, more like a ceiling than a sky).

      Like

  5. For the first time in my life do I hear words of acceptance of one’s condition. A while back already I thought of writing a book called The Embarrassed Life. I had no idea. I thought, as much as other people told me, that it’s a simple matter of getting over it. Forgive. Let go. Get on with your life. Don’t hark back. As if it’s something one could help.

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    • “Just get over it.” Those are probably the least helpful words one person can offer another. A person who says that might mean well–she really does want you to get over it and feel better–but our minds don’t work like that. When there is a deep wound, we need to process it, one way or another. This acceptance is a way that seems to be working for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Q, I wanted to say how much I love this post, and how impressed and amazed I am that you are able to give shame space to talk. Remember when you you couldn’t deal with shame at all? You’ve grown so much since you started this blog. I’m so glad to have gotten to know you and to get to witness your journey. Thank you. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like this post, too. And I realized the reason I like it is that I don’t feel so helpless against Shame anymore. Instead, I feel I am stronger. I can set limits. Not only that, but I can tolerate listening to what Shame has to say without needing to hide under the covers.

      You are right; I have come a long way in my healing journey. I know there is no end to that journey (no destination called “All Healed Up Now”), but I notice a profound difference. Thanks for being there during my travels and for so repeatedly offering up a comforting voice. xxoo

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a very insightful post. I am dealing with a lot of shame myself and in the beginning stages of beginning to heal that. I love your idea of it being a layer, and instead of getting rid of it turning it into something else. It’s very rare we can fully get “rid of somthing” but to channel it into something else, now that is the idea. Thank you.

    Like

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